Countering Maritime Drug Trafficking in Bangladesh’s Coastal Waters

Bangladesh coast guard patrol operations drug traffic
Bangladeshi coast guard vessel patrolling. Photo: Bangladesh Coast Guard.

Despite the harsh penalties in place for the distribution and consumption of drugs, authorities estimate that 7 million people in Bangladesh are currently addicted. Recent drug seizures off the coast of Bangladesh demonstrate the important role played by the maritime domain in transiting drugs into and through Bangladesh’s waters. In September 2020, for instance, the Bangladesh Coast Guard arrested seven men for transporting roughly half a million yaba pills through the Bay of Bengal. By further improving the capabilities, capacity, and interoperability of its coast guard, Bangladesh can take a proactive stance towards identifying and interdicting drug trafficking in the maritime domain. 

Bangladesh’s Drug Trafficking Problem  

High demand for yaba, a drug concocted primarily from caffeine and methamphetamine, has caused a surge in smuggling from major production centers in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. While rising addiction rates are a major issue, a further area of concern is the involvement of violent non-state actors in the drug trade. By overseeing the manufacturing and transport of yaba, Myanmar-based insurgent groups like the Arakan Army and the United Wa State Army can utilize the proceeds to fund their operations. As highlighted in Violence At Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain, authorities suspect that the Arakan Army in particular is involved in smuggling drugs into Bangladesh. Confessions from numerous individuals arrested for possession of yaba, including former government official U Kyaw Myint, drug smuggler U Wai Tha Tun, and Arakan Army officer Aung Myat Kyaw, establish links between the Arakan Army and a drug smuggling route stretching from manufacturing areas in Shan State to markets in Bangladesh with potential distribution via the maritime space to other destination markets. By contributing to insurgency resilience in Myanmar, the drug trade also indirectly fuels the displacement of civilian populations. The forced migration across the border into Bangladesh in turn places a greater burden on Bangladesh's already strained resources. 

Identifying the routes used by illicit actors to transport drugs into Bangladesh would allow for efficient resource and asset allocation. While the Naf River and the Mayu Mountains remain popular smuggling routes, authorities along the Myanmar-Bangladesh coastline have also seen an increase in seizures. Authorities captured their largest drug haul of yaba in 2016, when raids at a Chittagong anchorage and a Dhaka railway station resulted in the confiscation of roughly $10.5 million worth of the drug. A recent string of seizures, including those by the Bangladesh Coast Guard near Teknaf Upazila on September 15 and September 20 and near Saint Martin’s Island on November 4, underscores the ongoing nature of the problem. The prevalence of maritime drug-trafficking routes has placed renewed importance on the effectiveness of Bangladesh's navy and coast guard in combating this illicit trade.

Bangladesh's Maritime Law Enforcement Capacity 

Formed under the 1994 Coast Guard Act, the Bangladesh Coast Guard has been instrumental in counteracting non-traditional threats in the country’s extensive maritime domain. After verdicts from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the Permanent Court of Arbitration resolved Bangladesh's maritime disputes with India and Myanmar, Bangladesh was given control of 118,813 square kilometers of water, which is roughly equivalent to 80 percent of the country’s landmass. Although maritime anti-drug–trafficking operations are primarily within the jurisdiction of the coast guard, working closely with the Bangladesh Navy has increased the area of coastal waters that Bangladesh can consistently monitor for illicit activity and provides anti-drug–trafficking operations with access to the navy’s more numerous funds and assets. Along with customs, the police, and the Border Guards Bangladesh, the coast guard conducts anti-trafficking operations under the auspices of the National Narcotics Control Board, which coordinates their activities. The existence of dedicated law enforcement agencies combined with an infrastructure for collaboration on countering drug trafficking creates a sturdy foundation for future capacity-building. 

Bangladesh has also started improving its ability to contend with non-traditional maritime threats like drug trafficking through the 2030 Coast Guard plan, which has taken several important steps toward enhancing the coast guard’s capacity. In addition to an increase in manpower and vessels, the 2030 plan includes providing the coast guard with helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. The improved capacity will allow the coast guard to dramatically increase the amount of territory covered by patrols and surveillance equipment. These plans for increased baseline coast guard capacity have created opportunities for more specialized approaches to non-traditional threats such as drug trafficking. 

How Can Bangladesh Further Improve its Maritime Anti-Trafficking Operations?

Bangladesh has already begun enhancing its overall maritime capacity, but in order to fully capitalize on its improvements in assets and technology, Bangladesh should work to increase the amount of training and collaboration related to non-traditional threats. The Bangladesh Navy already participates in several multilateral naval exercises, including the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, and the Regional Seapower Symposium. Giving the coast guard a stronger role in these symposia or creating parallel multilateral exercises for regional maritime law enforcement entities would generate a more holistic approach to maritime law enforcement interoperability and training. The 2014 “Strengthening service provision for protection and assistance to victims of cross-border trafficking between Bangladesh, India and Nepal” project organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime could prove to be a useful precedent for similar projects more closely oriented around drug trafficking in the region. Likewise, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Programme-Indian Ocean East (UNODC-GMCP-IOE) has worked with regional stakeholders to improve anti-trafficking capabilities. As the Bangladesh Coast Guard numbers increase, training courses like the one held by UNODC-GMCP-IOE in Sri Lanka and Seychelles could ensure that members are ready to contend with the unique obstacles presented by non-traditional threats, such as dealing with civilians and interpreting vessel movement patterns. With plans in place for investment in physical assets, attention can now turn to further building the human capital and soft skills of the force through these types of initiatives.

Since the majority of maritime drug-trafficking routes originate from the east, bilateral collaboration between Bangladesh’s and Myanmar’s maritime enforcement agencies, including the newly created Myanmar Coast Guard, could prove especially useful for improving coastal maritime domain awareness (MDA). Along its western border, Bangladesh has already signed the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding with India, which involved coast guard collaboration, and participated in joint patrols during the 2018 and 2019 CORPAT exercises. Similar transnational agreements with Myanmar could create a unified front against maritime drug trafficking.

Increased training and interoperability are especially pertinent given the covert methods employed by drug traffickers to move drugs undetected through the maritime domain. For example, authorities  have identified overlap between illegal migration and drug trafficking routes off the coast of Saint Martin’s Island. Improving the coast guard’s sea-rescue capabilities and making headway in legal efforts to provide safer pathways for migration could improve border security against drug trafficking. Likewise, closer surveillance of artisanal fishing vessels, which are sometimes used by traffickers to slip by patrols unnoticed, could prove advantageous. 

Conclusion 

Drug traffickers transit Bangladesh's waters by taking advantage of gaps in MDA and insufficient maritime law enforcement capacity. Allowing drug trafficking into Bangladesh to continue has harrowing implications, including rising addiction levels in Bangladesh and increased insurgency resilience in Myanmar. By working towards better interoperability with neighboring nations, specialized training to confront non-traditional threats, and increased maritime law enforcement capacity, the coast guard can enhance its ability to address these illicit activities and mitigate their impacts on Bangladesh and the region as a whole.